A Guide to Teaching English in Iraq

Baghdad

Why Iraq?

A truly intrepid and enriching teaching experience and memories and friendships that will last a lifetime are the rewards for what can naturally be considered a challenging part of the world in which to live and work. Iraq is on the cusp of recovering from her recent troubles and looking towards a new and prosperous future. Once you have traversed the physical, cultural and practical obstacles of life in a developing country such as this… an experience like no other awaits.

How do I find an English teaching job in Iraq?

You can find teaching vacancies in Iraq via the more prominent ESL employment websites, such as eslbase.com and tefl.com. SABIS and Britannia Educational Services are among the well-established private education-sector companies who operate here, and would warrant an enquiry directly on their website. The American University of Iraq and the British International School of Kurdistan have an excellent reputation in the area and recruit on a regular basis.

What qualifications and experience do I need to teach English in Iraq?

In terms of job requirements, you will need a Bachelor’s degree in any discipline with the addition of a recognised certificate-level TEFL qualification (CELTA, TESOL etc.). Employers tend to expect a minimum of two years teaching experience and, in many cases, ask candidates if they have experience teaching in the Middle East… though this usually lies in the “Preferred”, as opposed to the “Essential” column.

What types of teaching job are available in Iraq?

Types of teaching positions found in Iraq these days essentially comprise of roles within universities and private language academies, or through an agent who has been tasked to deliver English language courses to employees of private companies. Naturally, such companies tend to be large oil and gas multinationals, due to the abundance of fossil fuels found throughout this ancient land. The latter roles are likely to be based on a purpose-built compound, on which necessary facilities (gyms, cafeterias etc.) and the camaraderie built among staff members make up for the inevitable fenced-in feeling of daily life in such environments.

Generally, these positions are well-compensated, yet often operate on a project-to-project basis, meaning that you could expect a gap between the end of one contract and the beginning of another. Accommodation is, of course, provided when on-site and flights are often paid for in advance by the employer.

What can I expect?

Teaching English in a university or private language academy in Iraq is fundamentally similar to such roles anywhere else in the Middle East. The working week is Sunday-Thursday and you can expect to have around 30+ contact hours per week, besides additional lesson planning and preparation time. The main bulk of the courses are General English, though IELTS is increasingly popular since gaining necessary qualifications required in order to study or work abroad remains the stalwart ambition of many young adults.

The acquisition of certificates in English also opens many doors on a local level for those who harbour a desire to remain at home. International organisations such as the UN and the World Bank, as well as private companies, particularly those mentioned in the energy sector, offer clear and secure career paths for those who are willing and motivated to tread them.

It’s still prudent to point out the fact that the English teaching industry being relatively under-developed, compared to other countries in the region, means that the presence of a native speaker of English is still something of a novelty. Therefore, you can reasonably expect to be asked to perform additional meet and greets, testing, and trial classes for new students. Although you should take care that such duties should not extend too far beyond the agreed number of working hours, this would be a familiar situation to anyone reading this who has worked in China or Asia, more broadly.

For positions in either state or private education centres, your employer will invariably provide accommodation as part of the salary package. Expect measures to be taken to ensure your comfort, with many taking great lengths to provide the relative luxuries they imagine a foreigner expects (wifi, satellite TV, etc.). In my particular case, the toilets were replaced with the style we are accustomed to in the West. At this point it is worth pointing out that the very traditional hole-in-the-floor toilets are still extremely common up and down the nation, particularly in schools, universities and government offices. Use of these can obviously be challenging for the uninitiated, but becomes significantly less so as time goes on. The best tip is to carry tissues, wherever you go.

Money

The Iraqi Dinar is used in tandem with the US Dollar to such an extent that it isn’t uncommon to see a bundle of notes being handed to a greengrocer which contains a mixture of both. You can pay for a product in one currency and receive your change in another… this has been the case since the most recent Gulf War and actually works surprisingly well.

Travellers to Iraq will not encounter a retail bank on every street corner, as they would elsewhere. Recognised money transfer companies, such as Western Union, are the go-to options for those teachers who want to replenish their current accounts at home.

How much will I earn teaching English in Iraq?

You’ll notice that I have been deliberately vague when discussing teaching salaries thus far. This is partly due to the fact that monthly pay can differ so wildly from job to job (ranging from $2,000-$4,000 USD per calendar month) and mostly because the subject of money requires much closer examination when the lack of an established banking system is taken into the equation.

Cost of living

This will likely be the cheapest country you will ever live in. A quick lunch will cost you a dollar, a sumptuous dinner banquet less than ten. Smokers will be astonished by prices for cigarettes not heard of since their grandparents’ generation.

You will marvel at the extremely low costs for private taxis to and from airports cast far and wide. I personally paid around $12 for an airport transfer that amounted to over four hours on the road. Local transport within cities can be counted in cents and is a fast and frequent option for the many people who use it.

A happy, yet incredibly impractical consequence of the extremely low cost of living can be the accumulation of large amounts of saved cash. Whilst this presents problems regarding how to keep this in a secure place, you should also duly note that there are limits to the amount of hard currency that can legally be transported from one country to another when the time comes to return back to your country of origin. The fact is, you will save a great deal – how much of it you end up with depends on the precautions taken. Strapping it securely in a money belt when on the move is strongly advised, as is using only established money transfer services that you know and trust. Though many unofficial channels exist, there is a lack of insurance and accountability that casts a dark shadow on an opportunity to bank your hard-earned salary.

Culture and cuisine

As the gateway to the Orient, we could be forgiven in thinking that the local cuisine would employ a range of spices. However, it must be said that everyday fare is surprisingly bland; with meat largely being boiled and seasoned very simply. The staples present at every table include rice, beans, fresh vegetables and the ubiquitous local flatbread. This is a picnic culture, with many families retreating to local beauty spots in order to enjoy fish or meat grilled over an open fire. It is customary to be invited on such occasions by colleagues and students, particularly around festive periods that occur throughout the seasons.

Even as a seasoned traveller, nothing had prepared me for the level of hospitality I experienced in Iraq. The role of a host is so deeply ingrained in the local culture. Don’t be surprised to be offered a bed for the night at the end of a meal. It is advised to be tactful and timely if it becomes necessary to refuse an invitation, as such extraordinary effort is made to ensure that guests are fully catered for.

There are other key cultural observances to be made here. Whilst it has long been a sectarian patchwork of its many different branches, Iraq is an Islamic nation, and there are fundamental aspects to consider whether the community you end up teaching in is either Sunni or Shia. Relations between unmarried men and women should remain professional, men should refrain from shaking hands with women when meeting them. Showing sensitivity to your fasting colleagues and students during the period of Ramadan, by not eating and drinking in their presence, is essential. Alcohol, though widely available in the Kurdistan Region, is considered taboo and isn’t socially acceptable for locals. Having said this, an enormous amount of deference is shown to foreigners regarding the consumption of alcohol and lifestyle choices such as this are tolerated and, to a certain degree, respected.


Luke Cassanell

Luke has been fortunate enough to have gained ESOL teaching experience all over the world. Since his first teaching job on the Greek mainland back in 2008, Luke has delivered thousands of hours of lessons to students at all levels, with a particular focus on Cambridge ESOL Examinations. Recent years have been spent as a Director of Studies, in both his home country of the United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy.

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